KENT, Ohio - Kent State has become the first university in the country to sign a student with autism to play Division I sports, according to WJW.
Kalin Bennett, a 6-foot-10-inch native of Little Rock, Arkansas, has signed a letter of intent to play with the Golden Flashes after playing high school basketball for Little Rock Christian Academy and Link Year Prep in Branson, Missouri.
Bennett told The Plain Dealer he credits his mother and a "great support system" with the progress he's made.
"I didn't talk till I was 7 years old," Bennett said. "But she just kept pushing and pushing, and she kept bringing me ... closer to other people. She just made me a better person, her and my dad."
Bennett's high school coach, Clarence Finley, said that Bennett is special in many ways. He believes the 18-year-old found success on the court, in part, because he was not treated differently than any of the other students in his school.
"If someone has autism, they will let them get away with the little bitty things – no. We held him accountable on the court, we held him accountable in the classroom, and I think that's what made him so super," Finley said.
His high school coach also credited Bennett's mother for making sure he was given the opportunity to succeed.
"By the time he left, it was no doubt that he was going to be very special, that he was going to be able to compete at any level he wanted to compete in, both academically and athletically," Finley said.
Kent State would not talk about Bennett specifically, citing NCAA rules, because he is still considered a recruit.
Gina Campana, the assistant director of assessment and research for the University's Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, did talk directly with Bennett and his mother during their selection process.
"I've talked to a lot of students that choose Kent State because of the initiatives that we have here for students who are on the spectrum," Campana.
These efforts include providing a quiet space for students to study and a student group that pairs students with autism with other students in an environment where they are equals.
As a mother of a Kent student with autism herself, Campana said she can communicate with parents of other students who have autism in a way that only they can completely understand.
She said she does not like to see autism as a disability but as a "super power," and said there is no doubt that students who are on the autism spectrum can succeed at anything, including basketball.
"If they want to be in video design, computer science or art, or whatever they want to do. Absolutely anybody who is on an autism spectrum can get a college degree. And, they can come and get that done here, at Kent State, and we will support them," said Campana.
Bennett is currently enrolled at Link Year Prep in Branson, Missouri.
"I want to be a professional basketball player, that's every basketball player's dream," Bennett told The Plain Dealer. "But at the same time I want to use this platform to inspire other kids."
He is expected to be enrolled at Kent in summer 2019.